Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Tobacco Tin by Jane Percival

Jane Percival's character tells the story of how he got through hard times during his childhood by spending time with his Granddad.

Granddad was killed in the Great War. He was conscripted by ballot in 1916 at the age of 31, leaving Grandma behind with four children. They never found his body. No doubt it was buried somewhere in the mud of Passchendaele. Mum said that all Grandma got was a telegram from the War Department, 'We regret to inform you...' Mum was the oldest and thirteen at the time, and it was tough going - helping to look after her little brother and sisters. She left home as soon as she could and had me when she was 25 - there wasn't much around by way of husband material.

I've thought of Granddad just about every day of my life. Anzac Day is this Friday and I saw an old biddy selling the red poppies down by Countdown this morning. The poppies aren't the real thing anymore - they're made in China. I have a framed sepia photograph of Granddad in my room upstairs. He's posing in front of a studio backdrop with his hands held behind his back. His uniform is buttoned and belted tightly, he has puttees from his knees to his ankles and a peaked cap. Actually, he looks a bit like me when I was younger.

Despite having died, Granddad was a huge part of my childhood. When I was a kid he'd often come and keep me company in the back yard. His khaki uniform smelled a bit funny and had only one proper arm. I asked him about the smell once, and he said it came from lying in a pool of mustard gas on the day he died. The other arm - the right one - was just an empty sleeve, tattered at the shoulder with a sticky looking hole. I used to rather he sat with his right arm away from me as a worse smell came from his arm hole. And from under his cap. And he only had one boot, but he didn't seem to mind. He wasn't very cheerful but he seemed to like to sit outside in the sun as he was always shivering. Sometimes he was shivering so much he couldn't even roll his smokes. I never took up smoking, but when I smell tobacco I always think of Granddad.

I first saw him one day when I had been shut outside for doing something wrong. Mum's boyfriend was jealous of me and once he moved in I spent a lot of time shut outside. I would sit there crying, feeling sorry for myself. The back yard wasn't much chop either. In those days, Mum rented an old stucco bungalow up near the Carillion on Tasman Street. The ground was concreted with a clothesline in the middle and weeds growing up where the concrete had cracked. It always smelled of gas - even before Granddad came. The yard came off the back of the house and had corrugated fencing on three sides, with a coal shed in one corner. It was pretty lonely out there. Only the wash-house window faced the yard, and that had a textured glass pane.

Anyway, I was sitting on a pile of old boards and scratching away at a crack in the concrete with a stick. I suppose I would have been eight or nine. I could hear Mum and Joe fighting inside. It wouldn't be about me. Mum never stuck up for me. I knew what would happen - he'd hit her a few times, she'd cry, he'd apologise and they'd go into the bedroom. Sometimes they wouldn't remember I was outside until after it was dark. But it must have been summer that first time, as the sun is part of my memory. And my first memory of Granddad is more vivid than any other, except for the final one.

A shadow fell across the ground in front of me, and I looked up. I remember the contrast of the heat rising up from the ground, the dark shadow blocking out the sun, and a cold feeling that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

"Hello son," he said, "I'm your Granddad." Just like that. I could have questioned this statement, but I didn't. It just seemed right, somehow.

Granddad asked if he could sit down and before I could answer, settled beside me. He stretched out his legs as if they were stiff, and asked me to reach into the top right-hand pocket of his coat for his tobacco tin. Then he asked me to open it. Inside was shredded tobacco and a small folder of papers. He rested the tin on his thighs and to my wonder, adeptly rolled a cigarette with only his left hand. The sun shone brightly on his trousers, turning the khaki to a golden colour, and as he snapped the lid shut, it reflected a bright dash of light.

We sat there for ages on that first day. I don't even remember what we talked about, but it felt okay. It was so much better to have company than to sit there alone, wondering about Mum.

From then onwards, he'd visit frequently, always when I had been shut in the yard, and always staying until just before Mum called me in. A few times we slept together for a bit, but this made me very cold and I'd lie in bed for ages afterwards before I started to warm up. These were hard times, and only Granddad's visits kept me going.

We talked about this and that. Me about the minor pleasures and irritations of my young life and Granddad of the war and the friends he had lost, of how he missed Grandma and the children, of barbed wire and chlorine gas, and the mud and exhaustion of Passchendaele, of the New Zealand Division's attack on Gravenstafel Spur in 1917. I didn't understand a lot of it, but his words have stayed with me. I could see the war through his eyes.

Joe started beating Mum up worse and worse, and of course, that meant me as well. On the day of Granddad's last visit, I had bruises all over my arms and legs, and a swollen lip. You could hear Mum wailing from the bathroom. Granddad took one long hard look at me, before saying, "That's enough." The smell from his rotten shoulder and from under his cap suddenly seemed stronger and I flinched. I couldn't imagine what Granddad could possibly do with only one arm and a missing boot. But I was only a kid, of course.

Once again, he sat down beside me and went through the ritual of rolling his cigarette. He lit up and sucked the smoke in, releasing a long white stream into the miserable back yard air. After a pause, he broke the news to me that he had to go away and that I wouldn't see him again for a very long time. I felt empty. I had no concept then of what a 'long time' might mean, but I'm going on 85 and I still haven't seen him.

Then he drew himself up and stretched his one arm. He tucked his tobacco tin into his pocket, fastening the button with one hand, before standing to attention and saluting me formally. He then walked over to the back door and knocked loudly.

It was Joe who opened the door and I can still see the expression on his face. He thought he was about to give me a good clipping on the ear, but instead, was faced with Granddad. I saw Joe bring his right forearm up to cover his nose, shielding his eyes with the other hand. He was tall and muscly, but seemed the least substantial of the two. For the first time, Granddad removed his cap, whereupon a yellow-grey swirling mist drifted out of his smashed cranium. I saw tendrils of gas being drawn into Joe's nostrils. By this time he was gasping hoarsely and clutching at his throat. I tried to look away but despite the horror, had a child's fascination with the unusual.

Joe was stepping backwards into the hallway, followed by Granddad, until they were both beyond my sight. Mum had stopped her wailing but wasn't anywhere to be seen. I could hear Joe's hoarse cries getting weaker and weaker, then all was quiet.

The back door was swinging gently and I waited for Granddad to reappear, but he never did. Eventually I picked myself up and went inside. There was no-one. I went through all the rooms and found Mum asleep, tucked up soundly in her bed. She had a black eye but otherwise seemed none the worse for wear. The whole house was silent. No Joe. No Granddad.

I was heading back outside when a gleam of light caught my eye. There in the hallway, on Grandma's old side table, beside the framed photo of Granddad, was Granddad's tobacco tin. I picked it up with a sad feeling in my heart and carried it outside. When I opened it, I expected to see shreds of tobacco and papers. Instead, there was small sealed envelope, addressed to Master William Walter Jennings, from Sergeant Walter James Jennings. Inside, was an embossed card, bearing the following message:

You are cordially invited to the trip of a lifetime.

Be at the Passchendaele New British Cemetery, 'S Graventafelstraat, Belgium, on Wednesday 4th October, 2017, at precisely 10.15 am.

That's still over three years from now. But my savings are intact - I just have to keep living.

8 comments:

  1. this is a truly wonderful Story, so nicely written, it just invites you in.

    poignant and thought provoking, with a lovely ending.

    in times of Need.....

    Well done

    Mike McC

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  2. A moving story told through an unusual prism,
    Thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  3. Hi Jane, this is an important piece life writing that captures and illustrates the family emotions of the period. An interesting read. James.

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  4. Young William's life was "haunted" before his grandfather's ghost came to visit. Then things changed.
    George Semko

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  6. Elegant, smooth writing with a nice ending. I like how it reads almost like nonfiction––until the main character's grandfather's ghost appears and kills the mother's lover with a cloud of mustard gas, of course. Nice job!

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  7. Quite a beautiful story. Wistful and haunting in all the right ways.

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